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Coming up, we will discuss this op-ed from Duchess Harris:
The Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL) recently held our 20th Anniversary Gala on November 14, 2015, where we celebrated African American law students and African American legal professionals in the community. It was a celebration of the many accomplishments and gains that have been made for African American lawyers and African Americans in general by advancing civil rights through the court system here in America. However, what loomed over the celebration were memories of past disenfranchisement and continuous struggles of present-day subjugation in the criminal justice system. Our speaker, Jeff Robinson, Director of the ACLU Center for Justice, spoke about the current state of affairs in our country, economic injustice, and the ever present implicit bias that affects African Americans and other communities of color today. Not more than one day later, many of us heard reports of yet another shooting of an unarmed African American man, Jamar Clark. This time, the tragedy took place on our front steps, here in Minnesota.
What does all of this mean, and what can we do about it? As a start, MABL firmly supports the decision to have an independent investigation into the shooting by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Investigations by these entities would ensure more trust and confidence in the integrity of the investigations in the face of the profound distrust and anger felt by communities of color and others toward law enforcement and investigative bodies in the state. The killing of unarmed African American people—people like Jamar Clark, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and countless others—are profound losses of precious life. And the protests, demonstrations, and other expressions in response to these lives lost are eruptions of preventable outrage in cities all over America and all over the world. Such outrage is not the problem itself; rather it is a symptom of the disease of racial and economic injustice plaguing our community. Much as in medicine, we should try to focus in on the root problem causing the symptoms, and we should do so without implicit bias that we know exists in every individual.
The hope is that, by bringing in outside agencies free from ties to local law enforcement, we might obtain the most objectivity in finding the truth in this case. As we know, the Court system is not the only, and not always the most effective, means of curing the symptoms of injustice in our society, and its results are limited. However, consider this quote—raised by Jeff Robinson at the MABL gala—by one of the greatest lawyers of our time, Charles Hamilton Houston, in a message he left for his five-year-old son:
I regard what I am doing and my work as a lawyer not as an end in itself, but simply as the means of a technician probing in the courts, which are products of the existing system, how far the existing system will permit the exercise of freedom before it clamps down. – (quoted in Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights, at 208.)
We must continue to be technicians, and continually probe our governing bodies to see how far they will permit the exercise of freedom—freedom from bias, from fear, from miscarriage of justice. We laud the demand of an independent investigation as a way of ensuring such freedom. We also maintain that, while the outcome of the investigation is important, it is not the endgame to stop the struggle within our Minnesota Community. If we stop acting as “technicians” here, the future only promises more loss of life, more reaction, and more of the existing race and class struggle in America. We demand an expedited and fair inquiry for Jamar Clark, and we should continue to work to address the disparities that play a role in his tragic death and the ensuing aftermath. That economic disparity includes disparities in education, housing, wages, and other essential areas of life. History has demonstrated time and again that if the people do not believe in or support the legitimacy of the government, there will be violence, but if the people are content and treated as valued contributors to democracy, equal justice and protection under the law are achievable.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his fourth and final book before his assassination, Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community. He concluded that all Americans must unite in order to fight poverty and create equality of opportunity. King emphasized that he was neither a Marxist nor a doctrinaire socialist; he instead advocated for a united social movement that would act within both the Republican and Democratic parties. He also criticized moderate American whites for having inaccurate, unrealistic views of the ongoing plight of African Americans, even after the legal reforms undertaken under U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. He also asserted that radical change was still not only just but necessary. King concluded that, rather than having a mere welfare state or a general class struggle, U.S. government measures should act more directly to benefit individuals by some kind of guaranteed minimum income.
How much has changed in the last fifty years? As members of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, we express our concern about the shooting of Jamar Clark and hope that we are able to move beyond chaos and build community.